Coinbase lists tether, the world’s dodgiest stablecoin

Coinbase, the largest crypto exchange in the U.S., just announced it is listing tether (USDT), the world’s dodgiest stablecoin. 

Tethers, for the uninitiated, are a stand-in for real dollars, used mainly on offshore crypto exchanges that can’t get proper banking. Now tethers can be found on Coinbase, a banked exchange—overseen by the SEC.

The timing of this is incredible, only a week after Coinbase debuted on Wall Street. 

Nobody knows for sure what is backing the nearly 50 billion tethers sloshing around in the bitcoin markets—maybe cash, maybe third-party loans, maybe hot air. But the price of Coinbase shares (COIN) is slipping, and so is the price of bitcoin. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so what can Coinbase do?

Why not list tether? That way, Tether (the company that issues tethers) looks legit, and more people can pile into bitcoin without worry. When BTC goes up, demand for $COIN follows. Problem solved!

Starting immediately, you can now send your dubiously backed tethers to Coinbase Pro—Coinbase’s online platform for professional traders. (Coinbase has a separate platform for casual traders called simply “Coinbase,” but tether is limited to Coinbase Pro for now.)

You will be allowed to trade tethers in every jurisdiction that Coinbase supports except for New York state, which Tether was recently hoisted out of by the NY attorney general.  

Coinbase only supports ERC-20 USDT, a reference to the nearly 24 billion tethers that live on the Ethereum blockchain. (Another 26 billion are on Tron, with a smattering on Omni, Algorand, EOS, Liquid, SLP, and Solana.)

Trading begins on April 26 at 6 p.m. Pacific Time—if liquidity conditions are met, meaning if someone is on-hand and willing to sell their bitcoin or ether to you for tethers, as opposed to real money. [Update: Coinbase has delayed USDT trading twice, first to April 27, now to May 3.]

Coinbase Pro will list the following trading pairs: 

  • BTC/USDT
  • ETH/USDT
  • USDT/EUR
  • USDT/GBP
  • USDT/USD
  • USDT/USDC

At the moment, you can only transfer USDT onto Coinbase Pro; you cannot move tethers off the exchange—although there is some expectation that could change once trading is established. 

What does this mean?

This is a terrible, dumb, bad move for Coinbase. 

The exchange clearly wants to rake in as much business as possible before the regulators step in and throttle its trading. (Regulatory ambiguity is written into the company’s S1 risk factors.) And right now, business is slipping.

Coinbase started selling its shares on Nasdaq on April 14. Its stock has since taken a dip, going from $381 at opening (and as high as $429 in the first few minutes of trading) to $293 when markets closed on April 22. 

At the same time, BTC has also taken a hit. Just ahead of Coinbase’s direct listing, BTC reached an all-time high of $63,700. Now it’s below $50,000. 

Tether has been trying to lift up the price of BTC with larger and larger issuances of tethers—prints of 2 billion at a time, bigger than anything we’ve seen before—but nothing seems to be working.  

At some point, it won’t matter how much USDT Tether prints. It won’t be enough to make up for all the real money that is exiting the bitcoin ecosystem on a daily basis. (The real money that investors put into the system, goes to pay the bitcoin miners who are selling 900 newly minted BTC per day for cash.)

Legitimizing Tether?

Bitcoiners are ecstatic over Coinbase’s listing of USDT. They say the move legitimizes Tether.

This is absolute madness. How do you legitimize a company that has been full of shenanigans since day one? The reverse is true: Tether is delegitimizing Coinbase.

Here is the irony: Coinbase—an exchange that has a BitLicense (issued by the New York Department of Financial Services) to operate in the state of New York—is listing a token sanctioned by the New York attorney general. 

The NYAG began investigating Tether for fraud in late 2018, claiming that Tether and its sister company Bitfinex, a crypto exchange, lied to customers in saying that tethers were fully backed, when in fact, they were not. 

“Bitfinex and Tether recklessly and unlawfully covered-up massive financial losses to keep their scheme going and protect their bottom lines,” the NYAG said.

The companies settled with the NYAG in February. Under the terms of the settlement, starting in May, Tether has to publish the categories of assets backing tethers. It also has to specify the percentages of each category, and spell out whether a category constitutes a loan or receivable.

This is a level of transparency that Tether has never lived up to before, and it could spell disaster for the BVI-registered company, if it’s revealed that Tether is simply printing money out of thin air.

If the Department of Justice decides to shut down Tether like it did Liberty Reserve in May 2013—which is what several nocoiner luminaries predicted will happen this year—what does that say about Coinbase listing this coin?

Three other U.S. crypto exchanges—Kraken, Binance.US, and Bittrex*—also list tether, but Coinbase’s public listing means the SEC is watching a lot more closely. Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong is well aware of this.

“We’re going to increasingly be having scrutiny about what we’re doing,” he told CNBC. 

Based on that reasoning alone, Coinbase’s listing of tether seems shortsighted at best, but maybe that’s the plan? If COIN crashes, Armstrong—along with Coinbase backers like Andreessen Horowitz, Union Square, and Ribbit Capital—will have made their riches, while retailers will be stuck holding the bag.

(*Updated to include Bittrex as another US exchange that lists USDT.)

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